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After a year of extreme isolation and grief over the loss of routines, careers, and, above all, lives, I was craving a post-lockdown detox and a chance to release long-held tension and fear. Enter the purifying power of the sauna.
I got my first taste of sauna on a family vacation at the (mostly shabby) chic town of French Lick, Indiana, in the late ’80s, home to the once-glamourous West Baden Springs and the birthplace of legendary Celtics forward Larry Bird. The condo we rented for the weekend had an indoor cedar sauna, which no one in my family seemed very excited about. So I sat there alone, for a half-hour, wrapped in a towel, reading a sci-fi YA novel until the pages came unglued from the spine due to the intense dry heat.
Even to my tortured preteen soul, the sauna felt like a quiet and relaxing refuge from a stressful world. But it wasn’t until I moved to Russia in my early twenties that I really fell in love with the sauna—or, as it’s called in Russian, banya (баня).
So, when my local infrared sauna studio, CYL (short for “Change Your Life’) advertised a summer special—60 days of sauna for $199—I signed up with the intention of going five times a week for the next two months. (Individual drop-in sessions at CYL cost $35 a pop, so I was looking at a savings of, well, a lot.) I was feeling ready to let that sh#t go the way our ancestors have been doing it for over a millennium.
A short history of the sauna
Humans have been sweating in saunas since around 2000 BC. The earliest known versions were holes dug into the ground in Northern Europe heated by hot rocks over coals. But indigenous people worldwide have used sweat lodges for ceremonial purposes throughout human history.
“Sauna” is a Finnish word, which is not surprising, considering that Finland is the uncontested capital of sauna culture, boasting 3 million saunas for a country of just 5 million citizens. There’s a Finnish expression that goes “No sauna, no home.” I lived in neighboring St. Petersburg, Russia, for eight years in the early aughts and traveled to Finland multiple times and I can attest to that fact. Finnish sauna and Russian banya are typically communal experiences. This is a time to gather with friends, family, and neighbors while you drink beer and sweat. To cool off, you plunge into an icy pool or lake or roll around in the snow. After a couple of rounds of this “fry and freeze” ballet, your brain is exploding with endorphins and life is good. Could this be one of the reasons Finland is the happiest country in the world?
In my Russia days, my girlfriends and I had a frequent Friday night date at the Women’s Deluxe Banya on Liteyniy Prospect in downtown St. Petersburg, where for 200 rubles (about $7 at the time), you could enjoy a traditional Russian wood-fired banya, a Turkish steam room, a traditional Finnish cedar sauna, and multiple pools, including an icy plunge. We’d share beers or a bottle of semidry Soviet Champagne, apply face masks, rub ourselves with used coffee grounds to exfoliate between sessions, and share the intimate details of our lives. Saunas inspire naked truths.
Hours later, I would emerge onto the street fresh and new, imbued with new hope and replenished resilience. The social aspect of the experience aside, after a good sweat, your mind is clear and your body is both calm and invigorated. Researchers have labeled this state “relaxed alertness,” and it is the ideal physical state for higher-order thinking skills such as problem-solving and creativity. To quote Finland’s only Nobel Prize winner in literature, F.E. Sillanpää, “The thoughts and feelings that emerge from being on the sauna bench could never appear being anywhere else in the world.”
Traditional saunas versus infrared saunas
Traditional Finnish saunas work by heating the air, which means the air temperature has to reach somewhere between 185 and 200 degrees for the body to start sweating. In contrast, infrared saunas use light to heat up the body directly, requiring a much lower temperature, closer to 140 degrees. That means you can stay in an infrared sauna much longer and, according to believers, reap more detoxifying benefits. Also, unlike traditional wet-dry sauna heat, infrared heat travels below the surface of the skin as far as 3 centimeters, which is why proponents say that it can actually heal inflammation deep inside the body.
CYL Sweat House, where I’m doing my regular 30-minute sessions, is not shy about saying that infrared saunas can “Change Your Life.” It’s in the name! According to their website, sweating in an infrared sauna can:
- Detox your body
- Rejuvenate skin
- Increase weight loss
- Speed up workout recovery
- Reduce stress
- Relieve pain
- Lower blood pressure
- Improve circulation
- Speed healing of wounds
- Help with treatment of chronic diseases (for example, sauna is often recommended for people with autoimmune diseases)
The studio features eight separate rooms with futuristic, grey retractable sauna beds resting on raised platforms. Each room also features a chair, mirror, soft lighting, and a speaker piping in new age music.
On my first visit, the front desk associate suggests that I set the customizable temperature level to 7. You can adjust the bed, lower body, and upper body to different temps (1–10) as desired. When the associate leaves, I strip down completely, lay down on the bed covered with fluffy white towels, rest my head on the pillow, and pull the top cover up to my neck. A towel drapes down to my chest to trap in hot air. I feel like a human burrito. Or like an eccentric millionaire resting in my own personal hyperbaric oxygen chamber. Regardless, it’s quiet, cozy, and warm. I turn on a podcast and sink into the experience.
About 10 minutes in, I really start to sweat. Even my uncovered face starts pouring sweat. I place the ice-cold washcloth given to me on my forehead. In a couple more minutes, I have to remove my arms from beneath the sauna cover. When the timer finally dings, I’m relieved. My heart is beating fast and I’m soaked with sweat.
Time to towel off. I’m really missing a shower at this point, and getting my bra back on is one helluva struggle. (Recommendation: Bring a stretchy sports bra to wear post-sauna.) The studio recommends that you wait half an hour before showering so your body will continue to sweat and detox.
Afterward, my face was definitely glowing and soft. I felt at ease. Later that night, I slept like a baby.
Here’s what happened after a month of infrared sauna
As any good researcher will tell you, correlation does not equal causation. So, whenever trying a new wellness trend, it’s important to maintain a healthy skepticism. Here are my takeaways after 30 days of sweating 4–6 times a week.
My skin looks better than it has in years
That post-sauna glow lasts all day, but after a month, my acne is significantly better and even the texture of my middle-aged skin is smoother. I find myself luxuriating in my evening skincare routine, feeling the smooth contours of my cheeks and chin, much like an actress in an infomercial. The blackheads are mostly gone with only a smattering remaining on my nose. The skin on my body is also smoother and softer. I find myself caressing my arms, delighting in their softness.
However, the chronic eczema between my fingers, an inflammatory condition classified as an autoimmune disorder, has seen no noticeable improvement. This is disappointing.
I did not lose weight
Fans claim that infrared sauna sessions not only boost your overall metabolism, but can burn 600 calories in a session. How I wish I could lie in a strange, heated contraption every day for 30 minutes and lose weight!
But alas, no luck.
Yes, you’ll lose water weight through sweat, but you’ll immediately regain it once you rehydrate.
Sadly, it’s not a workout…
According to my FitBit, my resting heart rate is between 70–75 beats per minute (bpm). While in the infrared sauna, my heart rate increases to a max of 110–115 bpm, which is the equivalent of a brisk walk for me—not an intense workout.
I do think that infrared sessions would be a good option for those with injuries that limit mobility. It’s a way to get some passive cardio activity without movement.
…but it does help with workout recovery
I returned to the gym (OrangeTheory and heavy lifting) the same week I started going to the sauna, and I can definitely say that I experienced far less muscle soreness than usual. If you’re restarting an exercise program post-lockdown, you might want to think about adding sauna sessions to the mix.
I experienced relief from chronic pain
I’ve had plantar fasciitis on my left foot on and off for more than a decade. It returned with a vengeance shortly after the start of lockdown, and it was seriously hindering my quality of life. I feel like the combination of going back to the gym and infrared sauna has helped my pain tremendously. I only feel a little soreness in my heel first thing in the morning. After a few stretches, it’s gone.
I experienced a reduction in stress
I look forward to my sauna time as “me time.” The experience itself is meditative and relaxing, and it also gives my mind uninterrupted time to wander and explore new ideas. Much like soaking in a hot tub, problems do seem to “melt away” when laying in the sauna. I always leave feeling refreshed and inspired.
So, did the sauna change my life?
Not quite! Although the infrared sauna experience is a far cry from the communal, celebratory sauna experiences I’ve known in Finland and Russia, it has its own pleasures and health benefits. An infrared sauna session feels more American—like an expensive, efficient, prescriptive life hack engineered to boost your mood and productivity, rather than an hours-long immersive experience shared with friends.
I’ll probably keep going after my 60 days are up, but I’ll need to schedule a trip back to Finland soon to get a taste of the real deal.
Editor’s note: Check with a doctor or healthcare provider before adding the sauna to your routine.